Republicans on a House committee voted Tuesday to forge ahead with broad plans to review the District’s laws and local spending, signaling a possible level of involvement by Congress in the affairs of the nation’s capital not seen since the 1970s.
While some Republicans struck a conciliatory tone toward the city, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said members are bound by a constitutional “duty and obligation” to oversee the minutiae of District affairs.
At one point, he suggested lopping off part of the District and folding it into Maryland, sending the committee into a tizzy.
“I really would love to explore the idea of retroceding the residential areas into Maryland so that not only do you have a member of Congress, but you have two senators a state legislature, a governor,” Chaffetz said. “If you want full representation, I’m very sympathetic to that. I think there’s actually a way to do that.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting delegate representing the District, interjected, “Has the chairman ever asked anyone from the state of Maryland how they feel about that?”
Laughter broke out in the committee hearing room.
Then, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Republicans have raised the idea in the past, but there are other considerations.
“There’s that sort of nasty little problem of the will of the people of the District of Columbia and the will of the people of the state of Maryland,” said Connolly, who represents Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia.
The committee’s two members from Maryland slammed the suggestion.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, called the idea a “frivolous proposal” that distracts from the need for Congress to honor the policies enacted by the District’s elected officials.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), whose district abuts the city, said the wishes of District residents should take priority. He noted that D.C. residents just voted overwhelmingly to petition Congress for statehood.
“If that doesn’t work out and the people of D.C. are bristling under their congressional overlords and the Trump administration, they should not buy the hype that people in Maryland don’t want them,” he said after the hearing. “The discussion has never taken place.”
The exchange came as the GOP-controlled Congress is poised to take up measures to remake the District’s gun laws, reverse its newly passed assisted suicide law and fiddle with its marijuana legalization. Last week, the House passed a law blocking the District from using local taxpayer dollars to subsidize abortion services for poor women.
The purpose of Tuesday’s session was to hear amendments to the committee’s plan for how it will oversee the executive branch for the next two years.
Cummings wanted to look into President Trump’s extensive overseas business dealings, his plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, his lease with the federal government for his D.C. hotel and his executive orders, including Friday’s temporary refugee ban — all ideas rejected by Chaffetz.
Norton unsuccessfully tried to strike language that expands congressional oversight of the city, requiring Congress to make sure that city laws and expenditures align with federal law.
In making her case, Norton referred to a recent op-ed written by Chaffetz and Jim DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina who leads the Heritage Foundation, on their opposition to the District’s “Death with Dignity” law. The law, passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor last year, allows terminally ill residents to end their lives with assistance from physicians. The District is the seventh jurisdiction in the country with such a measure.
“We will rage for the citizens of the District and ensure the seat of our federal government remains a place where the most basic right to life is protected for all residents,” Chaffetz and DeMint wrote.
Norton called the general tenor of the piece condescending and said one bit of hyperbole made her smile.
“If you want to rage for residents,” she said, “rage about the fact that they are number one per capita in taxes paid to support the government of the United States, but have no vote on the House floor.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the subcommittee where changes to District law and policy often get their start, said he has offered to work with Norton, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the city council if they would meet him halfway.
“To allow a city council and a mayor to establish national policy is certainly not appropriate — no more than allowing the mayor of Asheville to establish national policy for these 50 great states,” he said.
Calling Meadows her “good friend,” Norton said she was hopeful about working with him.
“He knows that I have to often tease him about where is that midpoint. I am still looking for it,” she said.
The committee voted down Norton’s amendment.